Supreme Court says police must get warrants for most cellphone searches
By Robert Barnes June 25 at 12:05 PM
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that police generally must obtain a warrant before searching the cellphone of someone they arrest, saying it was applying to modern technology the same privacy rights that date back to the nation’s birth.
Modern cellphones “hold for many Americans the privacies of life,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, in a sweeping opinion that seemed to contain warnings about the government’s ability to monitor the private lives of its citizens.
“The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought,” he wrote.
Roberts said that in most cases when police seize a cellphone from a suspect, the answer is simple: “Get a warrant.”
At oral argument, the court seemed divided on the cases. But they united behind soaring language from Roberts about privacy concerns in the digital era at a time when government surveillance programs dominate headlines and the cellphones that 90 percent of Americans carry contain sensitive information and a record of their whereabouts.
“There are apps for Democratic Party news and Republican Party news; apps for alcohol, drug, and gambling addictions; apps for sharing prayer requests; apps for tracking pregnancy symptoms; apps for planning your budget; apps for every conceivable hobby or pastime; apps for improving your romantic life,” Roberts wrote.
The court in the past had approved searching a cigarette pack found on a suspect, Roberts noted. But allowing police to look at a cellphone was more akin to allowing them to ransack a person’s home.
“Indeed, a cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house: A phone not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home; it also contains a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form,” such as tracking a person’s movement.
Justice Samuel A. Alito filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, despite reservations about what it might mean for law enforcement.
He also urged legislatures and Congress to get involved.
“Many forms of modern technology are making it easier and easier for both government and private entities to amass a wealth of information about the lives of ordinary Americans, and at the same time, many ordinary Americans are choosing to make public much information that was seldom revealed to outsiders just a few decades ago,” Alito wrote.
“In light of these developments, it would be very unfortunate if privacy protection in the 21st century were left primarily to the federal courts using the blunt instrument of the Fourth Amendment.”
In general, warrants are required for searches, but the court’s precedents have said that a person’s privacy expectations diminish considerably after an arrest. Police may protect themselves and others by searching the arrestee for weapons or securing evidence that might be destroyed.
Roberts said he “cannot deny” that the decision will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. “Privacy comes at a cost,” he wrote.
But he said police can use their own technology to ensure that the information on cellphones that might contain critical evidence is not erased or lost. He also said there could be “case-specific”exceptions to the warrant rule.
The decision settled a question that has divided and vexed lower courts: how to apply age-old privacy protections to a world transformed by technology.
The court considered two such cases in which courts came to different conclusions.
Brima Wurie was picked up in Boston on suspicion of selling crack cocaine in 2007. While he was in police custody, his flip-style phone kept receiving calls from a number identified as “my house.”
Using the telephone number and a reverse directory, police located his address, obtained a warrant to search his home, and found crack, marijuana and a weapon.
In a 2-to-1 decision, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit threw out the evidence against Wurie. The majority endorsed a rule that said warrantless cellphone data searches are “categorically unlawful,” given the “government’s failure to demonstrate that they are ever necessary to promote officer safety or prevent the destruction of evidence.”
A case from California went the other way.
David Leon Riley was pulled over in 2009 by a San Diego police officer for an expired registration. Police quickly discovered that Riley’s license was suspended and later found guns under the car’s hood.
Police also examined his smartphone and found language that led them to believe Riley had gang connections. A photograph on the phone linked him to a car that police said had been used to flee a shooting.
Riley was indicted on murder and other charges, convicted and sentenced to more than 15 years in prison.
A California court upheld the officers’ actions, and similar conflicting decisions have been recorded throughout the country.
The cases are United States v. Wurie and Riley v. California .
A PDF copy of the case is
Supreme Court: Police can't search smartphones without a warrant
David G. Savage
Police may not search a suspect's smartphone when they arrest a person, Supreme Court rules
Decision on searches of smartphones marks a victory for privacy advocates
The Supreme Court has decided that Americans have a constitutional right to privacy in the personal information they carry on smartphones, ruling unanimously that police may not search such devices without a warrant from a magistrate.
The decision is major victory for privacy advocates and the most surprising criminal law ruling handed down in years by the conservative-leaning high court.
“Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience,” said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’ ”
These tiny devices “could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers,” he said.
For that reason, the chief justice said the court would not allow police officers who make an arrest to routinely seize and inspect the suspect’s cellphone or smartphone.
In the past, the court had said officers may look through a suspect’s wallet or purse, and check items in the suspect’s pockets. Generally this was to ensure there were no weapons that might endanger officers or facilitate a suspect’s escape. Law enforcement officials argued that searching the contents of a smartphone was simply an extension of that right.
The court disagreed, saying the digital contents of a smart phone posed no risk or danger to officers.
“We therefore decline to extend (that past ruling) to searches of data on cellphones and hold instead that officers must generally secure a warrant before conducting such a search,” Roberts said.
The decision in Riley v. California reverses a ruling by the California Supreme Court which had upheld the search of a San Diego man’s smartphones after his arrest.
At the same time, the high court upheld a federal appeals court in Boston which had rejected a search of an alleged drug dealer’s cellphone.
While the court’s opinion bans routine searches of smartphones, Roberts made clear that these phones may be examined if the police convince a judge they have probable cause to believe a crime is involved.
"Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cellphone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple: Get a warrant," Roberts said.
The justices acknowledged the decision might make police officers’ jobs harder.
“We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime,” Roberts wrote. But he added, “Privacy comes at a cost.”
In one of the two cases in which the court ruled, David Riley was pulled over by a San Diego police officer in 2009 for having expired tags on his car. When the officer saw his driver's license was suspended, he checked the car and found two loaded guns.
Police then put Riley under arrest and examined his Samsung smartphone. It contained photos revealing his gang affiliation and one of an Oldsmobile that had been used in a drive-by shooting. Riley was charged with attempted murder in the drive-by gang shooting.
He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life. The California Supreme Court rejected his claim of a privacy violation, ruling that police may search a smartphone after making an arrest.